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Eco-Labels: Fact, Fiction, or Folly?

It happens every time I visit the supermarket - the internal monologue begins:

“Should I buy organic or locally produced tomatoes?”

“Is MSC (marine stewardship council) certified fish in plastic packaging better or worse than uncertified fish in cardboard?”

“Is it really better to have driven to the supermarket with my reusable bags than to have had my groceries delivered in paper bags?”

Despite specialising in environmental metrics, I frankly dont have the answers to these questions, so what are consumers without an environmental background supposed to do? Labels conveying environmental accolades (eco-labels) are becoming increasingly prevalent. According to the Eco Label Index there are now over 450 variations.

But are eco-labels really helping to drive environmental behaviour?

PAN is working on a novel approach to eco-labelling designed to cut through the noise, providing robust and transparent science-based data to consumers in a way they can understand and use. We are co-designing the interface with consumers, so last month I had the fascinating experience of dialing into a series of focus groups about whether eco-labels really impact purchasing decisions, which labels are most useful, and what information consumers really want to know about the products they are buying.

Eco-Labels: Consumer Focus Group Feedback

The focus groups only comprised people who considered themselves "environmentally conscious" but these people were divided into those who felt they had a high level of understanding of environmental impacts and those who did not.

Some of the findings confirmed what we already suspected, but some of the discussions highlighted that consumers (who consider themselves to be environmentally conscious) are even more passionate about the topic of eco-labels than we anticipated.

Some of the key themes from the focus groups were:

  • Consumers are confused. They really want to make “good” choices, but even those who felt informed about environmental impacts shared that they felt poorly equipped to do anything about it.

  • Consumers are busy. If it takes more than 10 seconds to understand a label on anything other than a “big” purchase (like a phone or a washing machine) – forget it!

  • Some consumers would be prepared to pay a bit more if they were confident of the environmental benefits of one product over another, but most would not.

  • Every focus group raised lack of trust as a key barrier for eco-labels to impact behaviour. The level of mistrust in companies’ sustainability claims was far higher than I had previously understood. The default position of consumers is that company claims are just greenwashing, and they expect companies to prove otherwise.

  • Carbon (such a hot topic for companies right now – pun intended!) is a secondary concern for most consumers. Plastics (and waste more broadly) took centre-stage in our survey on the importance of different environmental impacts. Deforestation came in as a close third followed by air pollution and then water consumption.

The biggest takeaway??

Consumers want data!

Despite some saying that they find environmental metrics confusing, most still wanted to dig into the details behind the numbers we shared with questions like “Does the water footprint of this bottle of milk include the water the cows who produced the milk drank?”

Environmental Performance Standards

In parallel to our eco-labelling workstream, we have been developing the draft standards that would allow companies to consistently assess the environmental performance (the Planetary Facts) of their products and understand this within scientific context. One of the important outcomes from this piece of work has been the feedback we received from senior business leaders on our Steering Group on the high value of our approach to businesses decision making. They highlighted the challenges of assessing, understanding, and communicating supply chain impacts. While consumers want labels that disclose the performance of the products, we were really excited to see that the businesses we are working with were focused on how this data will help them deliver better products.

What does all of this mean for our Planetary Facts initiative? We have processed the feedback from the focus groups into a refined concept we are very excited about. However, the second series of Focus Groups is coming up and we don’t want to influence their feedback, so no sneak peeks are available today.

Keen to be part of the Planetary Facts pilot?

We will soon be launching the next phase of work - piloting these labels on real products with 10 Programme Partners. Each partner will get Planetary Facts data for three of their products, be first to market with these new labels, will receive real feedback from their customers, and will get a seat on the Steering Committee to provide input into the shape of the methodology, the labels, and certification process.

Spaces are filling up fast - so if you you think your business might be interested in participating in the pilot, send us a message through our contact page here!

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